The Fall – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction round 1a

This post contains the first of my pieces for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. 48 hours to write a 1000 word piece in response to three prompts. The first round involves 2 pieces, with an aggregate score used to determine who goes through to the next round. This was my second piece which came 8th, with a score of 8/15.

_____

The Fall

Ghost Story, an Ambulance, a Walkie-Talkie

Waking in pain and in an unfamiliar location, Jordan struggles to recall how he got there and figure out how to contact his beloved Lilah before it’s too late.

Continue reading “The Fall – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction round 1a”

RPG Setting Rumours: street brawler edition

adult-ancient-armor-289831.jpg[NOTE: This post sat in my drafts folder for over a year. No, I don’t know why.]

There are two things I like to do when developing RPG settings:

First, I love to populate settings with rumours and local legends. These give a feel of being living places, and also you never know when a rumour will spark a plot hook that leads to a fun new adventure.

The second thing I love to do is crowd source ideas so that a) I don’t have to do all the work and b) I end up with a more varied and interesting range of possibilities to work with.

This post contains a series of ideas shared on twitter in response to this post:

Continue reading “RPG Setting Rumours: street brawler edition”

‘Uphill Battle’ – my NYC Midnight short fiction entry

Having not written any fiction for some time, this year I entered the NYC Midnight short fiction competition to kick myself into gear.

My prompts were: Fantasy, A picnic, a single mother.

As a result I produced “Uphill Battle”.

Enjoy, critique, ignore at will.

UPDATE: I received an Honourable Mention for this story, being one of the three stories in the heat to receive a commendation but not make it through to the next round. I’m pretty happy with that result, and am currently working with the feedback provided to produce a second draft (which is unbound by the competition’s word limit!)

Continue reading “‘Uphill Battle’ – my NYC Midnight short fiction entry”

The First Singer – A DnD 5e Bard variant

E.g. Chorister / Cantor / Hazzan / Muessin

This Bard is the leader of a religious rite or congregation. Their songs are drawn from the myths, legends, and rituals of a particular god or gods and their chants are part poetry, part prayer or mythic storytelling.

As a First Singer, the bard might be a part of a temple, leading worship and rites for the crowds, or they might be a wandering preacher, carrying the word and songs of their gods across the land. They are adept at engaging a large audience, and capturing a crowd with their mythic storytelling and song.

A First Singer is different to a Cleric, in that they find their inspiration in the stories and music, rather than more devout forms of worship. A First Singer need not even be a true believer, and may find religious songs a helpful ruse as they ply their crowds for donations and rumours.

Inspiration for a First Singer bard can be found in many cultures and times. The ancient greek chorus used to chant and sing and dance their epic tales as part of grand religious festivals, wearing masks and using small drums, cymbals and beat sticks. Among the many variation of Christianity you will find the Cantor, who leads a congregation in prayer. A similar role is played by the Jewish Hazzan, while the Muslim Muezzin leads the call to prayer to bring people to the mosque for worship.

Alignment: A First Singer’s alignment will usually partially align with the god whose stories they tell, or the temple in which they lead.

Instruments: Instruments that keep rhythm, like tambourines, drums, prayer cymbals or bells are very common among First Singers. Some may have stringed instruments, though would favour those like a lute that have a chamber for resonance and can be heard over a larger area.

Bard Colleges:

Bard(Web) (1)
Johan, a Cantor of Pelor. Image by @EthanMAldridge

College of Lore: A First Singer who joins the College of Lore may pursue the greater truth of the universe beyond the teachings of a particular god or belief. They may become mystics or gnostics who recognise a greater mystery of the world beyond a single deity.

Their spell choices will likely favour detection and dispelling, and the ability to perceive and cross into the meta-planes in pursuit of the ultimate, world-creating song.

College of Valor: It’s an easy step to go from leading a choir in song to inspiring an army with a battle hymn. First Singers who walk the path of valor may become the heart and soul of a fighting unit, crying inspirational charges and rallying songs, and soothing soldiers during brief respite.

Spell choices will favour those that inspire others to greater feats of heroism, heal the wounded and aid the Bard’s own fighting skills.

College of Whispers: These First Singers use their knowledge of ancient tales to invoke holy terror in their enemies in order to seek out heresy. Their chants and songs take on a darker tone as they seek out enemies of their god and deliver appropriate punishment. These questioners are not well liked, because they are often the vanguard of a full blown inquisition, and sometimes even their very presence, if known, is enough to create a religious panic and invite all manner of accusations between neighbours.

Questioners learn spells that distract and terrify their targets, compel truth or otherwise give the Bard an advantage in squeezing confessions – true or otherwise – from the subject of their investigation.

Netflix’s Bright and the problems of world building

Netflix’s Bright is certainty getting a lot of attention, as is the division between critics and fans, genre fans and fans of the movie, and just the general disagreement over whether it is actually “the worst film of 2017” or something to be acknowledged for its originality.

I’ll say up front that I’m glad this movie exists, because it’s bringing new attention to genre fiction in film (or, in this case, genre mashup fiction), and that Netflix chose to make its first big budget movie production something of this nature is not insignificant.

As a long time fan of Shadowrun, I’m 100% behind the aesthetic of fantasy races and magic in a familiar urban setting. But from the perspective of world-building and setting development that are intended to inform a cohesive story, Bright offers many examples of the dangers of being lazy in your approach.

The setting of this movie is so incongruous and lacking in internal consistency that I was unable to suspend my disbelief long enough to be taken anywhere by the story. It seems the writer, director and producers just flat out ignored some simple premises of setting development – namely that when you add an element to a setting, it has a ripple effect over time that affects the world around it.

In Bright we see a lot of world-shaping elements added without any evidence of those elements having had an impact on the development of society over time.

In Shadowrun this works because the story is that the world as we know is developed, and then in the early 20th century magic returned to the world, transforming a section of the population into elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs. And as the magic rose, long slumbering dragons woke up.

But in Bright, we hear about the 2000 year long history of the races having lived together, and yet see little to no evidence of those significant changes to human history having shaped the contemporary world in which the story takes place. Somehow, after centuries of social development that includes humans, orcs, elves, centaurs, dragons, magic, fairies and even more magical creatures that are never seen on screen, they still ended up with modern day suburban L.A.

This blog post arose from a conversation on Twitter, and so this next section gathers together the many questions I have of the setting which I just couldn’t rationalise based on the information presented in the movie.

It started here:

We see no evidence of the many races having had even a superficial impact on the shape of society.

‘Elf-town’ is a part of the city, and elves are described as a race of people ‘running everything’. So either they’ve always been around and in a position of influence, or at some point there was a war or some other takeover when elves took charge. As there is no mention of any elf war, or elf take over, or even any great resentment shown towards elves as you might expect of a conquering people, we can only assume that elves have always been there, and yet have had no more meaningful impact on the shape of society than to fence of a section of a large city.

Humans do that without being magical super-beings.

Elves seem to primarily exist in this movie as analogies for the wealthy, and this movie gives them little more depth of representation as a people than to make them look like the high end of New York or Hollywood. Everyone drives a super car and looks like a movie star, but they live in mundane looking buildings on asphalt streets that are identical to contemporary America.

However, in a world with magic and non-human races, why does America exist at all in it’s current form?

Many of America’s early settlers emerged out of the religious turmoil following the reformation, so in this world of magic and elves and orcs, did the Catholic church still dominate Europe for centuries? And was the reformation a multi-species issue?

How did Catholicism, or any form of Christianity, dominate in a world where an actual war was fought against a ‘Dark Lord’ of unknown magical power? We hear mentions of the orc saviour who unified the races against the Dark Lord (and are then expected to ignore the fact that despite this, orcs were still the subjugated race for thousands of years) yet see no evidence of that having any real influence on religion or belief or societal structure.

And then there’s dragons. Are they apex predators or super evolved magical beings?

Either way, for a dragon to fly, unmolested across the city (as shown in an almost throw-away establishing shot) is to suggest it has some accepted place in society, but where is that reflected in any part of the setting we see?

We are shown a dragon flying over a city that, in the movie, shows no sign of accommodating, protecting against, or interacting with dragons. They don’t even talk about them; Will Smith’s character makes a Shrek reference, but no-one mentions dragons.

This same question applies to the design of cars. If giants and centaurs are millennia-long allies of humans and elves, living in an integrated society, why did they develop cars that neither giants nor centaurs could ride in?

While xenophobia might provide an answer (thanks Litza) the movie doesn’t really bear this out.

The races are millennia-long allies, supposedly living with a level of integration that makes the exclusion and oppression if the orcs a singular thing.

The first orc to become a cop is a big deal – it’s a major subplot of the movie – but when we see a centaur cop being part of an orc beating, no-one bats an eyelid. Centaur police are an accepted part of the police force, suggesting that, in contrast to orcs, they’re a more accepted part of society.

In that scene, not one car looks capable of comfortably accommodating a centaur. There isn’t even a contemporary horse float! (something I imagine centaurs might find a bit degrading). Nor do we ever see such a thing anywhere else in the movie.

We know there’s a centaur police officer who, in stature, stands quite some distance above his human colleagues, but every doorway we see in the police plaza is the same width/height as contemporary human buildings. Do centaurs never come inside? Even as part of their jobs?

Was the centaur, like the dragon, just set-dressing without thought given to the implications of what it means to have centaurs in this world?

We simply see no evidence of society accommodating centaurs.

Finally, there are the orcs. As well as being another fantasy race, they’re super-humanly strong. In onc scene we see an orc single-handedly lift a car to retrieve a kid’s ball.

This means that humans, elves and all the other races had enslaved, or at least oppressed, a race of super-strong warriors for thousands of years, and the world they built off the back of that labour force was identical to contemporary downtown L.A.

So what does all this mean…

For a setting to be engaging and immersive, elements that define the setting have to be evident in the details. Sure, there is a certain amount of handwaving that goes on, but when creating a setting in which you want a story to play out, it is worth considering the broader effects of each new element you add. This ads depth that helps bring the setting to life, and it is what is painfully missing from the world of Bright.

In many medieval fantasy settings, different races are often segregated and, while they may trade and interact with each other, it’s more reasonable to expect such a thing as ‘dwarven architecture’ to be different from ‘human architecture’ to meet their different physiological needs in their own, somewhat closed-off regions of the world. But in an integrated multi-racial society that has supposedly developed over centuries parallel to our own society, many of these gaps are simply too big to overlook.

Still, I reiterate that I’m glad this movie exists and that it’s apparently getting a sequel. If it is successful in kicking off a new trend of urban fantasy in big-budget film and TV production, I just hope that there’s a bit more thought given to the details of the setting in future. beyond “let’s throw a dragon in the background, that will look cool!”

Creating drama in RPGs with choice and stakes

In my last post I responded to the idea that “there are no rules for the GM”, and explained why I disagreed with that premise. In the few discussions I have had and observed on that topic, one of the most common reasons given for a GM to ‘break the rules’ is to create drama or suspense in their games.

While that is certainly one way to achieve such an effect, it is a strategy that primarily targets the player while ignoring the fictional world of the character and is, in effect, only ‘half the game’ of playing an RPG.

In this post, I discuss the ideas of choice and stakes, two key elements of storytelling that can create drama and suspense for the player via the medium of the character and the fictional reality of the game.

In my experience, drama that revolves around these elements is much more satisfying for both player and GM than purely mechanical approaches.

RPGs as Diegesis

Previously, I have outlined the concept of diegetic and non-diegetic gameplay, and argued that to play any TTRPG required acknowledgement of the inextricable relationship between the two.

As a quick summary:

Diegesis – the fictional world of the game where character actions and their consequences occur. Diegesis is the narrative and plot of an RPG

Diegetic gameplay – actions that contribute to the construction of the game’s diegesis, such as describing or enacting character or NPC actions, in-character dialogue, setting descriptions, etc.

Non-diegetic gameplay – any ‘out of character’ action that ultimately informs and supports the creation of the game’s diegesis. For example, dice rolls and discussions of game mechanics, character creation, and moving miniatures around a map.

As a game session progresses, gameplay will necessarily alternate between diegetic and non-diegetic modes. This will often happen within a single moment, where the roll of a dice and discussion of target numbers and results is followed by the narration of action determined by the outcome of the dice roll.

Choices and roleplaying

Like the matrix, the success roleplaying ultimately revolves around the participants making, and having the opportunity to make, choices. Playing a role is the act of making choices that you believe the character would make in whatever circumstances the game places them in. Speaking in different voices, or maintaining characterisations are all elements of playacting that can be an enhancement of roleplaying, but ultimately the choices a player makes for their character are at the core of what it means to play a role.

Having choices, and more importantly, having choices that matter, is an essential part of having a sense of agency within the game. Without being able to make choices that matter a player risks becoming the passive receiver of the GMs game and story rather than an active participant in the collective gaming experience.

For the GM, this also means giving characters and players choices to make. When a character has to make a choice, ultimately it is the player making the choice in a unification of the diegetic and non-diegetic aspects of the game.

While player choice and character choice are still separate, however it is one of the actions taken in playing an RPG in which the diegetic and non-diegetic elements of the game are most closely related. A character in an RPG is utterly incapable of making a choice that is not limited by the knowledge and imagination of the player, and it is because of this concept of a character being entirely contained within the mind of the player that the act of making choices crosses, and indeed starts to break down, the diegetic line.

In short, choices presented to characters in an RPG are elements of the game that simultaneously engage player and character, and thus create more significant moments of drama than strategies that are directed more toward the diegetic character or non-diegetic player.

Creating Drama through high-stakes choices

One way that choices can be used to create tension and drama in a game session is when a choice has high stakes; when there are significant consequences for whichever option the character chooses.

If conflict is the essence of drama, then choices between two conflicting ideas are inherently dramatic. For the choice to be dramatic, however, the character has to have some awareness of the choice being presented to them, and of the consequences of that choice.

For example: The choice between two different swords with which to attack an approaching enemy may result in a slight mechanical advantage that affects the outcome of the fight, but the act of choosing the sword itself is not likely to create much drama.

However, choosing between two swords when the character knows that one of them is a relic of no special power but of great symbolic value that will legitimise the heir to a downtrodden nation but the other would grant the wielder particular power in combat just as a guardian monster is barrelling down the corridor… that’s a choice with high stakes and potentially long lasting consequences.

Drama is created in the moment when a player or character has to make a meaningful choice, a difficult choice, or a choice that has significant consequences for the character, their allies and even the setting of the game.

Suspense – the tension of not knowing – is also created in the moment of choice, and when someone makes a choice that has potentially high consequences, suspense can be felt in the time between the choice being and the final confirmation of the outcome that follows.

The character who chooses the heirloom sword out of a sense of duty to the family it belongs to, but then has to fight off some guarding fell-beast without the benefit of the magic weapon is going to have a more suspenseful fight, as it is assumed that their choice may well cost them their life.

However, while such choices might make for key moments of drama in the climax of a story, not all choices presented to a character need to be so character or world defining in scale in order to effectively create drama within your game.

Choice, consequences and scale

The choices a GM presents to their players can be varying in scale and consequence. By presenting choices of different scale and stakes throughout a story, with consequences that converge at a climactic point in the session, or even at the end of a longer running campaign, you can create a sense of thematic connectedness that makes stories and games feel more unified and satisfying.

Such experiences are also inherently more ‘dramatic’ in the sense of inviting players to be more emotionally invested because the players will to some degree realise that their own actions have brought some of the circumstances they face at the moment of highest conflict.

Continuing the example of choosing between swords that is described above, having players face the threat of a new warlord’s growing power and who decides that the players are enemies to be exterminated can create an interesting story and series of challenges for the characters to resolve. Discovering later that the warlord gained their power by forcefully taking control of a downtrodden kingdom after a legitimate heir could not be found might bring a greater sense of personal engagement to the player or players who are happily wielding the sword they found in a seemingly unrelated adventure several sessions ago.

On a smaller scale, choices that shape the dramatic climax of a story may be littered throughout one or more gaming sessions.

Classic-bordering-on-cliche’d examples include: do the PCs choose to intervene when local guards are being overly rough with the townsfolk; the PCs find a precious object and later encounter someone looking for that lost item, claiming it has some great personal value. Do the players return it to it’s (claimed) owner, or keep it for their own benefit?; a natural disaster/monster/warband is destroying a generally peaceful town, do the PCs intervene? Or flee and protect themselves?

Each of these choices may inform a scene of social interaction or combat, but ultimately the path of action hinges on a choice that the characters and their players make.

As a GM I personally enjoy the tactic of introducing the characters into a moment of conflict and simply letting them try to figure out what is the appropriate course of action. Whether they pick a side, or choose to remain separate, is a choice that carries consequences.

How to build a dramatic story around choices

So as GM who wants to create more dramatic stories that engage players on an emotional level, how do you factor this into your session planning?

The first thing is to recognise that by valuing drama as a goal, you’re elevating the narrative aspect of your RPG, and so narrative structures will play an important part in the construction of your session or campaign. From there, you are most likely going to take one ow two approaches to introducing choices into your gaming session…

Convergent choices

… in which each choice the players make has some influence upon a predetermined end point.

One strategy that is offered as advice by many authors is to start with the ending and work your way backwards.

Imagine the climactic conflict at the end of your session, story or campaign and ask yourself what moment of choice might exist with that conflict. What are the conflicting ideals the PCs may have to choose between?

The type of story you’re trying to tell will often influence the kind of choice that frames your story. In heroic adventures, often the choice will be between some variation of selfishness or selflessness, or between doing what is right vs what is easy (which is a variation on selfless/selfish). In more political stories the choice might be between two conflicting ideologies that inform opposing sides of a conflict, or about the struggle to expose truth in a timely fashion. Romance often revolves around the choice between love and other priorities (family, wealth, status, or even life itself).

Regardless of what the choice is – consider how it manifests in your story? What are the avatars of the different options that players will interact with as they play the game?

Once you figure that out, work backwards to consider the choices that lead to the characters being involved in and how each choice may ultimately influence that final climax. If they had a chance to win over an NPC early in the game (or even just a choice to treat them well or not) then that NPC could end up as an ally, or may even end up on the opposing side.

Was there a key artifact or resource or piece of information that might affect the final outcome that the characters had the choice to obtain along the way? Then that too will build towards the shape of the final, climactic conflict.

Each choice the PCs face can either lead to a different scene in the path of the story OR it can influence an element of the next scene or of the final conflict. Either way, all choices ultimately converge on the final, dramatic climax.

Divergent choices

The other option, in a much more sand-box oriented game, it to let the choices the characters make be the deciding factor of where the story goes.

The GM may introduce persistent NPCs or locations to which the story keeps returning, but the nature of the PCs engagement with, and return to these people and places will be largely determined by the choices they make along the way.

For the GM, this approach requires a bit more detailed record keeping in order to identify choices whose outcomes and consequences might influence later scenes or conflicts. If you’re willing to allow PC choices to create divergent storylines, then for the purpose of creating drama the moments of choice in a game are often best presented as meaningful scenes or self-contained vignettes. While you may use the consequences of such choices to build towards a climactic moment over time, it’s going to be less direct or or guaranteed than if you plan for choices to converge on a predetermined moment of drama.

Introducing Uncertainty

Uncertainty is the enemy of choice. Any individual’s ability to confidently make a choice is undermined by how certain they are of either the principles or information on which their choice is based, or their certainty of the outcome that follows any choice they have made.

A GM can make any moment of choice that little bit more dramatic by simply introducing an element of uncertainty into the scenario. Rumours, half-truths, red-herrings and other plot points are a great way to make even the most innocuous moment more suspenseful and interesting.

Sure, the PCs could easily wade through that unit of guardsmen – but earlier they found evidence suggesting the presence of a werewolf in the region, and it may be that one of the guards is a deadly lycanthrope capable of tearing them apart… but they still need to get inside that castle before midnight! So what are they going to do?

The role of game mechanics in choice driven games

 

While choices may be a mechanism for creating drama, neither choice nor drama are a guarantee of the character’s success along their chosen path. Game mechanics still have a crucial role to play in determining the outcomes of a PCs choices – especially when such choices lead to combat.

The uncertainty of dice rolls allows you to to draw out the suspense of a moment or, better yet, a meaningful choice made by the PC gives greater weight to the dice roll and creates suspense around the outcome that wasn’t likely to be there before.

I just keep reminding myself that in order to keep the story alive, dramatic and interesting, the mechanics exist to serve the game’s diegesis, rather than try to replace it as a non-diegetic source of drama.

Expectations and trust in RPGs: Or ‘Why GMs have an obligation to follow the rules’

Note: This is version 1.1 of this post, following feedback from various sources. Also, this post begins with one massive assumption – that people who play RPGs do so for the sake of entertainment and enjoyment, and that games are more entertaining and enjoyable when conducted within positive interpersonal relationships (as opposed to hostile or conflict-oriented relationships). If you disagree with this basic premise, you’re probably not going to find much value in the post that follows.

I decided to write this post after a brief conversation following this tweet:

 

Though in reality I was also responding to many other instances that I’ve seen this sentiment expressed in much angrier and more confrontational ways in different forums about gaming.

It is a sentiment with which I strongly disagree.

While every published RPG will likely include a statement that “these rules are just guidelines, change them as you see fit”, this does not grant a GM carte blanche to mix things up on a whim, or to do so at the expense of the rest of the players of the game.

This post is not about the freedom of gaming groups to modify the rules as they see fit. This post is about the mindset of some in which the GM is distinct from the players in a group, and believes they are not bound under any obligation to recognise the published rules of the game, or even, it seems, abide by unwritten social rules.

I’ve played in games with GMs who take the “GM is god” attitude, and on the whole found them to be utterly unenjoyable – not least of all because of the underlying conflict between people that this attitude fosters. I also took this attitude to being a GM at various times, and can also say that it was some of the worst GMing I’ve ever done, because, again, it fosters interpersonal conflict, but also because it transforms a position of responsibility into one of authority and power over people who are, otherwise, friends.

(and I want to note that while I identified Graham Warden’s tweet as an inciting incident for this post, in no way do I ascribe any particular intent or meaning on Graham’s part. He quite generously chatted with me for some time via twitter and even provided some feedback on an earlier draft of this post. Perhaps unfortunately, his tweet reminded me of a range of negative aspects of the gaming experience which I’m responding to, and I don’t want that negativity unfairly ascribed to him.)

The question of whether or not a GM is obligated to follow any kind of rules comes down to the GMs role in establishing and managing personal and player expectations within the game, the impact of individual expectations on the gaming experience and the role expectations may play in inciting conflict within a gaming group.

Expectations and emotional reactions

Have you ever heard it said that managing your expectations is an essential part of part of being happy?

Or what about the role that expectations play in creating humour, which says that humour is created when you violate an expectation the audience holds (either an expectation you create through the ‘setup’ of the joke, or an expectation commonly held as part of societal norms) in a way that is ultimately safe for the audience member.

There’s also a significant relationship between one’s expectations and feelings of safety and, consequently, anxiety.

Expectations play a significant role in the way we go about our lives, our state of mind and also our interactions with others.

Use walking as an example: when you expect the ground in front of you to be stable and flat, you step forward, almost unconsciously, confident in your expectation that the ground will take your weight and allow you to take another step. When something happens in contradiction to that expectation – maybe your foot hits an obstacle you hadn’t expected, or the ground was less solid that you expected – you might feel a range of emotions.

If you stumble slightly, it might be mild surprise. If you stumble in public you might feel embarrassment and even a bit defensive. If you suspect someone else has played a part in your stumble, you might feel anger or betrayal or humiliation, depending on your predisposition. And if you stumble and start to fall, you might even feel momentary panic at the possibility of imminent physical harm.

We form expectations based on past experiences that we extrapolate into the future, and it is the relationship between those expectations and our experiences that have such a significant impact on our state of mind and capacity for action.

What is important to note about this function of human psychology is that while you can attempt to apply conscious control over your expectations, the forming of expectations and their influence on your emotions and behaviour happen unconsciously as an ongoing process. It is entirely possible to experience an emotional reaction on behalf of an expectation you didn’t even realise you had. As such, you can’t always control your emotional reactions to things, but you can seek to exercise some control over your behaviour in response to those reactions.

You can see examples of this in just about every area of human activity. Every seen a professional sportsperson go absolutely berserk at a referee? Chances are the referee made a call that seriously clashed with the players’ expectations about the validity of their actions in the game. Or in a domestic setting have you ever felt frustration, or seen someone get frustrated or even angry when a household item isn’t in the place it was expected to be in?

That’s someone acting on an emotional reaction to expectations not being met, regardless of whether or not those expectations were reasonable.

So what does this have to do with RPGs and gaming?

Player expectations and rules

Just as humans go about their lives with expectations based on their past experiences, a player engaging in the fictional reality of an RPG decides on the actions of their character based on their expectations of the fictional world in which the game is being played.

So what informs those expectations? First, like in real life, past experiences of playing such games, but secondly, and possibly more importantly, the published rules of the game they are playing.

A player who has read the core rules of the game, even if they’ve only read the rules as they pertain to their character, will have formed a set of expectations around how the game is played, how the fictional game world works in accordance with the rules, and what kind of actions their character can take.

If, for whatever reason, the players expectations are broken, they are going to experience exactly the same kind of emotional reaction as a person would in any other circumstance. As with any other situation, it is entirely possible for a player to have entirely unreasonable expectations. Maybe their expectation are being informed by a misinterpretation of the rules, or maybe they expect to always succeed without factoring the random element of dice rolls into their expectations. Nevertheless, broken expectations will provoke a response.

The nature and severity of someone’s reaction will be modified by the circumstances in which the expectation is broken, much as with the example of an unexpected stumble while walking.

When a player wants to perform an action during a low-risk, relatively calm moment of the game, only to be told “the rules don’t quite work that way”, then their reaction is likely going to be similarly calm – especially if the player is then able to reframe their proposed action according to an updated understanding of the rules.

If, however, a player seeks to perform an action during the climax of a significant moment of conflict during which the stakes are high and possibly the character’s very life is on the line, only to be told “you can’t do that”, then the emotional reaction is likely to be more significant.

In a perfect world all people would have the level of self control necessary to be able to process such a reaction, filter it through an analysis of their own expectations before reacting in a measured way (“I’m sorry, I thought rule X meant I could do Y, could you explain?”). However, humans are wonderfully irrational creatures at times, and an outburst of “That’s bullshit!” is just as likely, if not moreso.

It’s entirely likely that such a reaction from a player will violate an expectation of the GM who initiated whichever interpretation or the game rules the player was responding to. If nothing else it may contradict the GMs expectation that they were correct or justified in their initial behaviour. Expectations and reactions are complicated, overlapping, and sometimes circular things.

This is where the behaviour and attitude of the GM come in to it.

The inherent authority structures within (most) RPGs

While there are a range of ways for a group of people to engage in a TTRPG, the most commonly encountered is one which has an individual as Game Master, and everyone else in the role of Player, controlling one or more characters within the diegetic game.

While the players control their character(s), this structure places the GM in the position of being the author of the universe in which the characters are acting. There are many different approaches to the role of GM, from being the ‘lead storyteller’ to the ‘primary arbiter’ to the ‘GM is god’ – regardless of how authoritarian a GM is or is not in their approach to the role, the GM still defines the way the world works around the players.

But while the GM has authority, they also are ultimately responsible for meeting or violating player expectations about that world in the context of the game.

Whether or not a GM adheres to the rules of the game, or discusses rules variations in an upfront manner, plays a significant role in their ability to gratify or violate the expectations of a player, and, more importantly, it informs the very process of forming expectations about a game that a player may have.

This is where trust comes in. People form expectations about each other, and react accordingly, based on past experiences, and trust is the name generally given to positive expectations of another person.

If Players have the expectation that the GM will follow the rules and identify specific rules variations ahead of time, then there will be greater trust, and players will be more willing to take risks within those rules and engage more actively in the game.

Trust is an essential resource that GMs need for those times when they want to defy the rules to serve the story – one example includes the characters being stripped of their powers or equipment, forcing them to deal with challenges that were once beneath them. If there is trust between Gm and players, then such a situation is more likely to be accepted. However, if a player feels that the GM ignores the rules on a whim, breaking expectations and jeopardising the player’s enjoyment of the game (and their character’s life), then trust is diminished and the player approaches the game more hesitantly, and the focus shifts from diegetic action to resolve challenges in game to interpersonal conflict as a way of addressing matters of character action.

Like with the very forming of expectations and reactions to them, this relationship exists whether people are conscious of it or not – and it is an unfortunate reality that it is much easier to damage and destroy trust between people than it is to build it up.

So what does this all mean?

RPGs are a unique form of entertainment that blend free-form action with rules-defined play structures, and they are also an inherently collaborative social recreational activity, which means that there is no real separation of the game from the people who play it. As such, I believe that any approach to playing a game needs to include an awareness of the people playing it.

Ultimately this boils down into two sets of advice for players and GMs:

Advice for Players

  • Be aware of your expectations, and what is informing them
  • Be aware of your reactions to expectations being broken
  • Try to be aware of the expectations of others at the table, including the GM (session 0 is a good way to address this)

Advice for GMs

  • Be aware of your expectations about being a GM, and what is informing them
  • Recognise that the rules of the game play a critical role in the forming of player expectations and enjoyment of the game, and that you have primary authority and responsibility over the exercising of those rules in high stakes, high conflict game situations
  • Discuss variations to rules upfront, in a manner timely enough to let players shape their expectations around them
  • Recognise that disagreements about rules are often more about the expectations formed around those rules, and consider your own role in informing and breaking those expectations.

Some final thoughts – Session 0

One of the most popular strategies for managing expectations in an RPG is to have a “session 0” – before gameplay actually begins, have an open discussion about the style and approach to playing the game that everyone can agree to. While I think this is a good idea, I’ve never really engaged this strategy explicitly. Instead, I try to be open about matters of rules and game management as the game progresses. We will have fairly open discussions about relevant sections of rules as they pertain to an upcoming scene, and then play through that scene.

Regardless of how you go about it, transparency is at the core of these strategies, and a consistently transparent approach will, over time, become the platform on which people in your group will build their expectations and trust in each other, and this is an essential part of a collaborative social activity like TTRPGs.